It’s hard to improve something if you have no idea how to measure it. “Being a better fencer” is a worthy goal, but it is difficult to know if you’re achieving it.
We all want to be better fencers. If you don’t then you can stop reading here - but leave a comment at the bottom because I’m curious why you’re on this site. We train, drill, spar, compete, pore over old books and read modern fencing handbooks on the sly. All to be better fencers.
How do we know if our training is working?
The simple answer is, of course, “because my freeplay is improving”. Even then, how do I know that this is true? Fencing performance is the result of many variables. If I fence the same opponents every Saturday for 6 months then how can I tell if I’m getting better? If my proportions of hits landed to hits received begins at 1:3 and in 6 months is 1:1, it suggests I’m improving. But it’s also possible that my opponents are getting worse. Perhaps someone is suffering from a chronic condition with constant joint pain and muscle weakness. and in a month more they’ll announce he has to give up fencing. Poor them, and it would sink my “I’m git gud” hypothesis.
Equally, what if I never notice a difference in performance? Every week, I do roughly the same in bouting against my regular opponents. Unnoticed by me, we’re all getting better though. Faster, stronger, more cunning and with greater technical variety. We’re still proportionally the same, but when we go to a tournament? I take fourth place to my teammates still, but we all cream everyone else. It’s nice when the team takes the whole podium, isn’t it?
Competition is a great way to check progress beyond your usual circle. So is sparring outside of your club, as I helped establish Waterloo Sparrring Group for.
These are two extreme examples of the way variables can affect fencing results. The other major issue is that getting good is not a linear progression. You can put in a lot of effort and notice little result. Then one day something clicks, and your fencing improves hugely in a short period. Not only that, but sometimes you will get worse as you get better. Trying to incorporate new techniques and tactics results in worse fencing, as measured by the old yardstick: “Did I hit him? Did he hit me?”. You suck at the new things you’re trying, and you’re not using the things you’re experienced at and best at. Not only are there plateaus, there are dips. Simply following “how well I fenced today” can give an incorrect impression of development.
What other measurements can we make, besides hits given and received?
Measure your drilling. Observation alters behaviour. (Social) scientists call this the Hawthorne Effect. When you know something is being studied, you change your behaviour. Like when you keep a training diary, and show up to training more diligently. Don’t just think “I want to do this drill well”, but count successful vs unsuccessful reps. Think about which work best, feel best.
Overdo the measurement and observation. Where is each foot landing when you step? Don’t just aim for the mask, aim for a square centimetre, and track which way you miss. The point is less to run statistical analysis. It is to stop you from engaging auto-pilot. Practice with deliberate intent and thought - called Deliberate Practice.
Beware, in all this training, of putting too much pressure on yourself. These are strategies to improve as fast as possible. As fast as possible is as fast as possible. Faster is, by definition, not possible. So do not stress that you should be improving more quickly.
One method for bringing deliberate practice into my sparring was introduced to me by Jack Gassmann, winner of “best hair in HEMA” two years running. It’s simple: make a checklist in advance. A list of things I want to do, and the number of times I want to do them. For example: on my index card is “left Zwerch to right ear as Nachschlag” and five boxes next to it. After each round of sparring, I shuck my glove off, pick up a biro, and mark a line through a box for each time I attempted it. A cross shows I succeeded in executing it.
This has flaws. I’m likely to rack up the ticks against lower level opponents, and keep using my A-game against the best sparring partners. But it encourages me to try them and refocuses me on what I want to work on.
Tricks of Perspective
Another aspect of measuring your fencing is to get outside perspectives. I always try to ask my sparring partners what I could do better. I try as often as possible to have a third party standing by watching for feedback. Whenever I can, I put a camera in that third party’s hands. Video has the amazing quality of making your flaws obvious. Painfully obvious. When you use it, please remember what I said about not being too hard on yourself. You don’t move like you imagine you move. In my dreams I float like a butterfly and sting like a bee. On film, I do both like a water buffalo. Still, I make myself watch so that I learn.
Finally, please remember that your coach exists to help you. They're also (probably) experienced in watching fencing, understanding it, and giving advice. Take advantage of them by getting feedback, and make use of them by acting on that feedback.